The Hamilton County Commission is serene about its custom of offering a prayer to God before meetings. Its convictions in the matter, despite threats from two indignant residents who sued in U.S. District Court on Friday, are settled.
The two critics of the petitions to God — Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones — who are seeking a preliminary injunction in their federal complaint, aren’t mere cranks, as some people might gracelessly declare. They realize that the formulation “in Jesus’ name” is crucial to their claim that identifies the body of the people’s elected representatives as Christian in their general orientation. If Jesus’ name is cast into the darkness beyond the bright light of prayer, it becomes what is called a generic prayer. That is, a prayer to an unidentified and presumably harmless deity by whom no one would be offended, as he stakes no claim upon their lives or their allegiance.
The critics no doubt would favor an end to prayer of any sort. Prayer implies that man is a creature, a subject; it implies God is a Lord, even of Tennesseans and their democratic institutions. They would perhaps tolerate a dechristianized prayer, if only at the very least. That would not impede their desire to have the commission be steered toward a more materialist frame of mind.
The people’s representatives know their theology better. Taking Christ out of a prayer to God effectively denies all other doctrines of Christianity. If Christ is not the mediator, the One through whom a man has access to God the Father, the entire structure of Christianity might be seen as truly in pieces, a shambles on the floor. Christ’s role as advocate, mediator, intermediary between a holy God and sinful, fallen man is central to Christianity and distinguishes Christianity from religion.
THE FOUNDERS OF our state, in their compact with its free people, wrote into the constitution a disqualification for any state officeholder. Article 9 contains three rules, one of which prohibits dueling. Another prevents Christian ministers from being in the General Assembly, and a third forbids atheists from holding any state office.
The second of these provisions, on atheism, doesn’t suffer from overreach. The constitution does not presume to thrust its hand into an officeholder’s soul and require him to believe in God. Rather, more deferentially, more realistically, it simply prohibits professed and self-styled atheists from holding office.
No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.
So, a man who makes a profession of atheism, or who is known to deny God and deny the existence of heaven or hell, is barred from office. An officeholder’s religious beliefs are important for the press to cover. A legislator who makes statements indicating he is an atheist would be subject to impeachment and removal, according to the constitution. It would be a major scandal for such a controversy to be dug up — denying the existence of God. Big media of our day — TV stations, the Times Free Press, the Nashville Banner — do not concern themselves with a political figure’s religious beliefs. But an officeholder’s religious ideas are a legitimate area for news reporting.
It is unconstitutional for an atheist to hold office partly because he cannot bind himself by invoking God’s name in an oath.
“[An atheist] cannot be a constable, nor even an administrator. The reason given, in addition to the constitutional provision, is that such a person cannot take the oath; that he cannot be trusted, and that he is not trustworthy. The constitution has pointed her artillery against such as avow themselves to be atheists. No law can place an atheist upon a footing with a Christian, because the constitution has placed the barrier between them.” — Notes to decisions, Tennessee Code Annotated, Article 9
The constitution contains a complementary provision that helps position and indirectly affirms the ban of atheism. It’s the prohibition on religious tests. It might first appear our state fathers are contradicting themselves in Article 1, but they’re not. Here’s what they write:
“Sec. 4. No religious or political test.
“That no political or religious test, other than an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and of this State, shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this State.”
This provision prohibits any test among Anglicans and Presbyterians, or between a papist and a Wesleyan, between a Baptist and a devotee of the Torah. In other words, the legislature will not take part in a family feud among various communions of Christianity (or Judaism). None of these parties could be accused of atheism, as they believe in God and insist on a future state of rewards and punishments.
The two provisions I cite are not incoherent. One limits tests among Christians, the other insists the officeholder make no claims, no statement, take no position against God and the places of heaven or hell. It is not required that he believe in God, just that he is forbidden to deny him in any public fashion. And insofar as he seeks office, no requirement can be made that he be a Baptist or a Methodist.
COUNTY COMMISSION MEMBERS are not officers “of the state,” being servants and ministers of Hamilton County. They don’t represent the state’s voters, but the county’s. Arguably the constitutional provisions do not apply to these men.
Still, one could consider an argument that the provisions do apply to the commission on the grounds of agency. Hamilton County is a division or subdivision of state government. The county is creaturely, an arm, hand and leg of the state, acts as agent for the state, and is thus equal to Tennessee government in its capacities and the scope of its authority. ‡
I leave this notion of interchangeability of state and county office as a morsel for thought. If one could research the relationship between the state and a municipal corporation, one might conclude that a county’s officers are on the same level as state officials insofar as obedience to the ban on atheism is concerned.
The lawsuit claims the commission is violating federal supreme court opinions on the First Amendment which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof *** .” Federal judges hold this provision to be a ban on Christianity, preferring instead to elevate the concepts of humanism and statism, which deny a supernatural or cosmic order to the universe.
A negative rule against atheism is not perhaps helpful in county attorney Rheubin Taylor’s brief to the judge who’ll hear the case. But it shows that God is part of the state’s legal fabric. The members of the county commissioners are acting in good faith with their prayers, not in bad faith. Arguably, since they took an oath to uphold the state constitution, they can insist that prayer is in keeping with their submission to “the being of God” and acknowledgement of “a future state of rewards and punishments.”
I’d like very soon to consider the compulsion of Mr. Taylor who on June 6 offered the prayer in Christ’s name at the commission meeting. Is it necessary to pray in the name of the Son of God? Is anything really amiss before God from an intentionally “generic” prayer?
‡ Insofar as it’s pertinent, an Illinois case suggests the high esteem the law gives to municipal government as part of the state itself. “The purpose of municipal corporations generally is to carry into effect some power which the State itself may, but cannot conveniently, exercise, and we see no distinction between the power of the State to establish a municipality or a municipal corporation to carry out a public purpose and the vesting of such power in a municipality already in existence.” People v, Chicago Transit Authority, 392 Ill. 77; 64 N.E.2d 4; 1945 Ill. Lexis 412
Sources: Corpus Juris Secundum, municipal corporations
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I am very upset over these groups that want prayer banned from public places. They are trying to abuse my right as a Christian to pray.
If they do not want to hear the prayer they don’t have to listen. I would start meetings by saying “We are going to say a prayer to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for those who do not want to participate please step outside for a moment and then rejoin us.”
I believe in everyone having the right to believe what they want to believe. My belief is in the Lord, Jesus Christ. I feel sorry for these groups that are against us and against prayer. Hell is very hot, but it is their choice where they want to spend eternity.
I will treat these people with respect but I ask the same in return from them. This is the problem with our lives today, even Christians want to sugar coat truth, and walk around what might be offensive to others.
Follow the words of Jesus and we will all have a better life here and hereafter.
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Mr. Tulis’s lengthy dissertation on prayer, municipalities vs. state status, generic prayer, and his interpretation of the Constitution leaves out one main concept—the founding fathers’ unequivocal need to avoid the religious tyranny wielded by King George over his subjects; hence one of the demands that the Constitution addresses in the Establishment Clause.
One also needs to consider the diversity of this nation and accompanying religions that are practiced here. If we are to sanction Christianity as our “official” religion, we begin to take on the same problems and disasters faced by countries of the Middle East where religious factions wage war upon another for centuries—wars that are never won or solutions obtained.
Our governments, be they federal, state, county, or municipal, have better business to conduct than to spend time segregating and dividing citizens. Our founding fathers were very astute to recognize that religion is a wedge. The intent of the Constitution on religion is clear on prohibiting religious practices in government business. One can interpret all he or she wants, but that intent cannot be denied.
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Tommy Coleman, Brandon Jones, Robin Flores, among other opinion writers here, certainly need to spend some time on the website of the U.S. Office of the Chaplain of the House of Representatives and the website of the U.S. Chaplain of the Senate. While there, they should review the history of religion and prayer within our federal government and this nation, planned and thoroughly documented by the founding fathers, by the First Continental Congress, and through the appointment in 1789 of the first U.S. chaplains under Article VIII, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.
Recently, Tommy Coleman made a statement insinuating that they are only doing exactly what our founding fathers would have wanted: enforcing the separation of church and state. Most certainly the uninformed trio of Coleman, Jones, and Flores are hoping everyone else will ignore the well-documented intentions and statements of the founding fathers who clearly supported and provided for the open practice of both religion and prayer in this nation from its very conception, including in federal government business.
It is a fact that our U.S. chaplains have delivered prayers at the beginning of each session of the U.S. Congress and the Senate for 223 years--in official government buildings, at official government meetings and ceremonies, as well as for other government-sponsored events. Freedom From Religion wants everyone to believe there is no historical basis for religion or prayer in government or public buildings, when in fact that is totally untrue. The only thing prohibited by the U.S. Constitution is the establishment of a "state mandated religion," and to my knowledge, no federal, state, or local government in this country has ever mandated that every citizen under it's rule must become members of any specific religion--not Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Unitarian, Jew, Catholic, Muslim, or any other--another fact well documented on the U.S. Chaplain site.
Freedom From Religion needs to get a clue. Across this nation, patience has run out with this miniscule group that continues to seek fame and media face time through their juvenile tactics. Don't want to pray? Then just don't. That is how adults behave. Listen to your headphones, twiddle your thumbs, check your iPad, update your Facebook page, tweet, or plan your entrance to the building until after prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance are said, since some today even seem to find patriotism a target for ridicule and lawsuits. But then, no one can ever accuse Freedom From Religion of acting like adults.
There are certainly far greater issues confronting this nation at this moment in time than to spend one more minute or one more nickle of taxpayer time and money of on such ridiculous, fame-seeking, childish, and totally unnecessary lawsuits.
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I have a solution to the prayer issue. It will stop the law suit from the Freedom From Religion zealots cold.
If the official start time for the Commission Meeting is 7 p.m. then all the commissioners that wish to participate and all the citizens that wish to participate can meet for prayer at 6:50 p.m. This would not be an official part of the meeting.
The prayer would only take a couple minutes and the people who didn’t want to hear the prayer would have plenty of time to get a seat before the start of the meeting. The meeting would then be called to order at 7 p.m. and no prayer would be heard during the meeting. This should satisfy the 99 percent of the people that would like to ask God for His wisdom during the decisions to be made at the meeting and should pacify the 1 percent who seem to live to make everyone else’s life as miserable as theirs.